- Associated Press - Thursday, August 20, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Crews were working Thursday to prevent a wildfire from spreading to the small Montana community of Essex as authorities closed a major transportation corridor on Glacier National Park’s southern boundary.

The fire is burning in the Great Bear Wilderness about 2 ½ miles south of Essex, near U.S. Highway 2 and Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s main northern rail line. Favorable weather aided firefighters earlier in the week, but the temperature was expected to rise and the wind to kick up Thursday, blowing the blaze toward the highway, fire information officer Sonja Hartmann said.

“We are preparing for the worst at this time,” Hartmann said. “It’s just going to depend on the weather.”

Authorities shut down a seven-mile stretch of the highway and the rail corridor near Essex Thursday afternoon after embers began to fall on the roadway, Flathead County emergency information officer Jennifer Rankosky said.

The highway is a major east-west route that stretches from New York state to Seattle, with the nearest year-round highway more than 100 miles to the south. The railway transports passenger trains, coal, oil and agricultural products to the Pacific Northwest and connections across the nation.

Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry and his deputies notified 106 residents in and around Essex that they must prepare to leave and recommended they begin loading their cars immediately, county emergency information officer Rankosky said.

Forty-two people were home and notices were left at the rest of the homes.

There are 200 threatened structures, according to fire officials, which include homes, vacation cabins and the Izaak Walton Inn. The privately owned lodge was built in 1939 and is an attraction for cross-country skiers and visitors to Glacier park, whose border is just on the other side of the highway.

Fire and county officials were assessing how to best protect structures in the community. Red Cross officials were preparing a shelter in West Glacier 30 miles north on U.S. Highway 2, Rankosky said.

There were 212 people fighting that fire and two others burning in Glacier National Park and the Flathead National Forest. Normally there would be more, Hartmann said.

“We’re really strapped for resources,” she said.

An average of 30 to 35 trains pass through that rail corridor each day, BNSF spokesman Matt Jones said. Some of that traffic is being re-routed, though Jones could not provide any further details.

BNSF officials have brought in a fire suppression train from Spokane, Washington, and 40,000-gallon tanker cars filled with water to protect its property and assist firefighters’ efforts, Jones said. BNSF has a rail yard with equipment next to the Izaak Walton Inn, snow sheds and a bridge over nearby Sheep Creek.

“We have plans to respond to incidents like this, but every situation is unique,” he said.

West of Essex near the Idaho line, 30 to 40 homes north of Noxon were evacuated Thursday, a day after fire officials told residents in 14 homes to leave. Wind and very low humidity have caused the fire burning in the Kootenai National Fire to spread, prompting concerns that it may combine with blazes burning nearby, fire information officer John Head said.

Residents south of the evacuation area on Montana Highway 56 and along a nearly four-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 200 have been warned they may have to leave, too, Head said.

The smoke from wildfires has degraded the air quality in parts of western Montana so badly that officials are advising children, the elderly and people with heart or respiratory problems to stay indoors.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality issued the warning Thursday for the Flathead Valley, Hamilton, Butte and Bozeman.

The air is only slightly better in other western Montana cities and towns from Libby to Missoula, and in the central Montana communities of Great Falls, Helena and Lewistown.

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